The most infuriating Lion of all-time

In many ways, Scott Mitchell epitomized the disappointment of the Detroit Lions in the 1990s.

Three straight completions in the hurry-up offense, a timeout, a cocky unbuckle of the chin strap, and a glare toward the stadium clock.

It was poetry in motion as the Silverdome crowd rose to its feet, thus cementing the first-ever Scott Mitchell standing ovation.
It was the intensity we begged. The take-charge bastard of the offense. The crack-the-beer-can-on-the-forehead stud who policed the field.

And then, after all that, after finally falling into the good graces of Lions fans for the first time in his life, Mitchell – just four minutes later – threw a pick-six to Cincinnati’s Corey Sawyer and the Lions were 34-28 losers in overtime.

Herman Moore slammed his helmet to the turf, the Silverdome boos reached an all-time high, and Mitchell never played another snap in Detroit.

That standing ovation? That brilliant 2-minute drill? Forgotten.

“The defensive back just turned at the right moment,” Mitchell told Mitch Albom.

This moment on Sept. 13, 1998, was a microcosm of Mitchell’s career in Detroit, a perfect example of his inconsistency.

Minutes earlier, he performed the best sequence of his life. He mastered a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive that tied the game – a drive that saw his immobile frame scramble twice for 19 yards, a miracle in itself.

He finally earned the favor of critical Lions fans with 1:52 left in regulation when Barry Sanders’ 5-yard touchdown run capped Mitchell’s masterpiece.

But it was just a case of Dr. Jekyll. Because sure enough, Mr. Hyde followed.

Mitchell ruined all of his laudable work on the Lions’ next drive. He looked for Sanders on the far sideline, yet his floating pass was picked off. Cincinnati nearly won the game in regulation, but Doug Pelfrey’s 48-yard field goal was blocked by Marc Spindler.

To overtime we went. And on Mitchell’s very first pass attempt, he misread Johnny Morton’s route, connected with Sawyer, and that was the end of his Lions’ career.

Two consecutive passes, two consecutive interceptions.

Remember that standing ovation? That brilliant 2-minute drill? Forgotten.

A DISASTER IN THE POSTSEASON
It only makes sense with Mitchell.

We’re talking about the guy who led the NFL’s No. 1 rated offense in 1995, who passed for 4,338 yards, 32 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions, and then played the worst game of his life in the first round of the playoffs at Philadelphia.

He threw four interceptions in two and a half quarters. It was more than he had in a game all season.

Heck, it was 51-7 Philadelphia with nine-plus minutes left in the third quarter when Wayne Fontes yanked Mitchell.

“Why?” Mitchell was caught saying to Fontes on ABC cameras. “Why?!?”

Why? Because you completed more passes to the Philadelphia defense than the Lions offense, that’s why.

“We could have played a high school team today and not beaten them,” Lomas Brown said to the Baltimore Sun.

That was one Mitchell playoff disaster.

Here was another: the 1997 playoff loss at Tampa Bay.

He was 10-of-25 for 78 yards and left the game in the third quarter with a concussion. Herman Moore, who had an NFL-high 104 receptions in the regular season, did not have a catch in the first half.

“I guess we just didn’t want to win,” Moore said to the Chicago Tribune. “It was very frustrating not to be able to contribute more.”

ANOTHER EPIC FAIL BY LIONS MANAGEMENT
Truth be told, Mitchell never should have donned the Honolulu Blue and Silver. He was the beneficiary of the NFL’s free agency liberalization in 1993 (part of the collective bargaining agreement).

Mitchell got his chance to start in Miami in ’93 when Dan Marino tore his Achilles tendon. He went 3-4 in seven games with an 84.2 quarterback rating and threw 12 touchdowns versus eight picks.

Average numbers, right?

Well, they were spectacular according to the Lions, who signed Mitchell to a three-year, $11 million deal. (For comparison’s sake, he was scheduled to earn the near-equivalent of Red Wings superstar Steve Yzerman.)

“Free agency was better to no one, than Scott Mitchell,” expert Peter King told NFL Network. “He never would’ve been a millionaire in Miami, but he was a millionaire several times over going to the Detroit Lions.”

The old saying goes, “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

Mitchell was given millions, thus, his expectations among Lions fans were sky high. He had Barry Sanders in his backfield. He had receivers Herman Moore, Johnny Morton, and Brett Perriman, perhaps the best trio in the NFL. He had Pro Bowl offensive linemen Kevin Glover and Lomas Brown.

He had a team that could’ve been a perennial contender.

Yet, nine games into his tenure, Mitchell infuriated his teammates to the point of Lomas Brown’s “I’m gonna get him out (of) the game” decision against Green Bay on Nov. 6, 1994.

Nine games. That’s all it took.

He had the mobility of a tortoise, he threw the football like he was tossing a shot put, he whined to refs and he never took any blame.
He finished his Lions career with these numbers: 27-30 regular-season record, 54.8 completion percentage, and, worst of all, two playoff disasters while the greatest running back in NFL history stood behind him.

Chalk it up as another epic fail by Lions management, and this award goes to GM Chuck Schmidt.

“What did (Mitchell) do to earn that gig?” John Gonzalez of the Philadelphia Inquirer said to the NFL Network. “He backed up Dan Marino, he held a clipboard. I guess he walked down the sideline without tripping.”

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About Bruce Mason

Bruce Mason's work has appeared on blogs such as allpuck.com and obnoxiousfan.com. A Detroit native, he worked part-time at the Detroit News in 2006-07, freelanced for Crain's Detroit Business, and is now a five-time award winning writer at a daily paper in Idaho.